It's about time!
And it's no surprise - to someone who has been following her for many years - that she brought something fresh to the stage - a new violin concerto by Los Angeles jazz pianist and composer, Billy Childs. This was just the fifth performance of the concerto, which was composed in 2020 and premiered in 2022. It was commissioned by Rachel and performed previously by her with co-commissioning orchestras: the Grant Park Orchestra, the Boulder Philharmonic, the Anchorage Symphony, and the Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra.
On Thursday Rachel - playing her 1742 "ex-Bazzini, ex-Soldat" Joseph Guarnerius “del Gesù” violin - brought the concerto to life with her virtuoso chops, musical sensitivity and intense commitment, with French conductor Stéphane Denève at the podium. (Denève, who is Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, starts as as Music Director of New World Symphony in September.)
Rachel is a musician who has long been dedicated to performing works by African-American composers - it was back in 1997 that she recorded her album, Violin Concertos by Black Composers Through the Centuries, and in 2001 she started her Music by Black Composers initiative, which has included a Living Composers Directory, Historic Composers Directory, Volume One of a Music by Black Composers series of graded repertoire for violin, and a Coloring Book of Black Composers for children.
Billy Childs' Violin Concerto No. 2 was the third piece he has written for Rachel. Written during the early stages of the pandemic, Childs said that he wrote the movements in reverse, starting with the third - and they reflected the way he coped with his anxiety and depression over the COVID-19 pandemic. "If one were to compare the various moods of the movements to the stages of grief, then movement three would be anger, movement two would be grief or sadness, and movement one would be acceptance," Childs wrote in the program notes. "But programmed in reverse, the piece now conveys the opposite progression: from rejoicing and acceptance, though remorse, and finally arriving at anger and resilience."
He named the movements after those emotions. The first movement, "Romance/Rejoice," began with a soft canon starting in the cellos, moving to the violas, then second violins and first violins. The solo violin began gently, eventually moving into a cadenza with vigorous double-stops.
While the concerto is not dissonant, it is often loudly discordant, perhaps a reflection of the societal discord brought about by the pandemic and social upheavals of the time.
The second movement, "Remorse," featured a mournful melody in the solo violin, which Rachel played with a soulful singing voice - bringing to mind another facet of the pandemic, the idea of life slowing down. Another beautiful moment came in a duet with cello, playing by LA Phil Principal Cellist Robert deMaine.
Darkness had fallen over the Hollywood Bowl, bringing a blessedly cool breeze. In a reminder that we were in the middle of a giant city, the sound of a helicopter accompanied the end of this movement!
I perked up at the solo cadenza that led into the last movement, entitled "Resilience." As Childs noted earlier, here is where he was feeling the anger. Somehow this movement felt the most lively - fast and furious, at times buzzing like the the bees around my picnic earlier in the evening. Rachel's playing was energetic and virtuosic, impressively executing intricately fast notes. The music had the whirl of a tornado, the reckless drive of a train going nowhere.
While Childs is known as a jazz musician, this was not a piece that felt jazzy, nor did it contain melodies that stuck in the head, to sing on the drive home. Instead it felt like a work reflecting the confused and frustrating time when it was written.
For an encore, Rachel told the audience that she wished to play something related to movies, and since she was in Hollywood, she turned to a movie in which the violin was actually the main character: "The Red Violin." She performed several of John Corigliano's "The Red Violin Caprices." (Theme from Chaconne, No. 2 “Pope’s Gypsy Cadenza” and No. 5 “Pope’s Concert.”) There were plenty of pyrotechnics, with beautifully executed double-stops, left-hand pizzicato and more.
And speaking of the movies, the night had actually started with John Williams' score from the movie "The Book Thief." This film city loves this composer, and much to everyone's excitement, Williams was with us in the audience, watching the performance. The piece was bookended with beautiful oboe solos by LA Phil Principal Oboist Marion Arthur Kuszyk, full of lush string writing and melodies. While everyone applauded at the conclusion, the giant screens showed conductor Denève hugging the score as he bowed.
The evening concluded with a performance of the ever-popular "Pictures at an Exhibition" by Modest Mussorgsky, orchestrated by Maurice Ravel. It's a familiar favorite, but is it too familiar? No. To hear this incredibly well-crafted piece played by the accomplished and sensitive musicians of the LA Phil and Denève is to remember what this business of live music is about.
In a town where the entertainment industry has been all but shut down by labor disputes over artificial intelligence, it's worth remembering that nothing can replace the energy produced by the cumulative physical effort of live performers - in this case, the synchronized human breath, the motion and movement, the plucking of strings, the concurrent movement of 50-some bows up and down together, the pounding of drums and striking of bells - all in the service of presenting one musical idea to several thousand listeners. We never should forget that.
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